How the WSJ magazine fails its readers

By Felix Salmon
September 13, 2010
Lucas Conley's piece on Ugg for the WSJ's magazine is a perfect example of why the WSJ shouldn't have a glossy, fashion-friendly magazine.

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Lucas Conley’s piece on Ugg for the WSJ’s magazine is a perfect example of why the WSJ shouldn’t have a glossy, fashion-friendly magazine.

Conley does a reasonably good job of covering the way in which Deckers Outdoor Corporation, the American company which owns the Ugg trademark, has become a highly-aggressive trademark troll, and in the process has helped to decimate a small but longstanding Australian industry. But having found that story, he buries it, and ends up capitulating to all the evil impulses of the fashion industry.

If you read closely, you’ll find Conley explaining how, despite the fact that “uggs have been a cottage industry in Australia for decades”, Deckers became extremely aggressive when it comes to those small local companies, slapping them with cease-and-desist orders and in general trying as hard as they could to use trademark law to shut down anybody who might be considered a competitor. It won in the US against Koolaburra, a US firm importing sheepskin boots and selling them under the name “ug”, although it lost in Australia against Uggs-n-Rugs, a 32-year-old sheepskin outfitter. But the big picture is clear:

While Deckers may have lost the Australian trademark battle, the company is winning the war. Today, Deckers owns “ugg” trademarks in over 100 countries, protecting them with high-tech anti-counterfeiting tools and a sophisticated network of lawyers, customs officials, corporate coalitions and private investigators. “Counterfeiting is one of the plagues of a popular brand,” says Leah Evert-Burks, Deckers’ inhouse counsel and director of brand protection. “There are some anti-counterfeiting measures I can’t even talk about. It’s amazing what you go through when you get involved in this world.”

By Deckers’ count, last year the company terminated over 20,000 eBay auctions, shut down over 2,500 websites, and accounted for some 60,000 pairs of counterfeit boots seized by customs officials. While Evert-Burks emphasizes that the vast majority were blatant criminal operations out of China (which often glue inexpensive cow suede to the exterior of the boot in place of twinfaced sheepskin), Stewart says he still receives complaints from Australian vendors who have been lumped in with counterfeiters.

Like a global mute button, the threat of legal action has stifled the Australian ugg industry’s efforts to market internationally. The McDougalls claim to have lost 90 percent of their international business since 2004. Their daughter gave up entirely after Deckers shut down her eBay business. “Almost anyone who sells anything with the word ug, ugg or ugh is infringing on their trademark,” Bronwyn says. “There’s no argument.”

At the same time, however, Conley, or his editors, go to great lengths to be as friendly as possible to Deckers. For instance, he doesn’t actually come out and say that uggs have been a cottage industry in Australia for decades: he feels the need to call them “generic uggs” instead, as though they were somehow copying the Deckers Uggs long before the Deckers Uggs even existed.

What’s more, throughout the article, the Deckers product is referred to in all caps, as an UGG. No self-respecting newspaper style guide would ever allow such a thing, but glossy fashion magazines never had any self-respect in the first place, and it’s clear which side of the line the WSJ magazine falls.

Worst of all, however, is the sidebar, which compares Deckers’ boot to the competition:

The UGG Australia Classic boots come in short (midcalf) and tall versions. Any variation on these heights are not genuine UGG boots.

A genuine UGG has the registered trademark symbol ® next to its logo on the label…

Some fakes use synthetic “fleece”.

My emphasis, but you get the point, which almost tips into self-parody here:

Deckers’ UGG boots are made in China, so if the label says “Made in Australia,” it is not an UGG.

The point is that there are lots of Ugg boots. The most popular Uggs are made by a US company in China. That company owns a bunch of trademarks, which somehow means that the WSJ can talk with a straight face about “genuine UGG boots”, while saying that all other Ugg boots are fakes. But the fact is that an Australian Ugg boot, made by a company which long predates the Ugg trademark, is by any sensible definition just as genuine, if not more so, than the boots that the WSJ is falling over itself teaching us to recognize and distinguish.

Yet somehow Conley feels impelled to inform us that if a boot is made in Australia — the home of the Ugg boot — then “it is not an UGG”.

To give an example of how ridiculous this all is, imagine that an American company — maybe even Deckers, you never know — decided to buy up a small knife-making company in Thiers, France. And say that after doing so, it started to register the name Laguiole, and the famous bee symbol, in jurisdictions around the world.

Deckers then decides to outsource production of Laguiole knives to China, while at the same time slapping anybody else trying to sell Laguiole knives with a cease-and-desist order. It starts impounding any Laguiole knives which are imported into the US, and shuts down any market in Laguiole knives on eBay or in other marketplaces.

Laguiole knives have been made by thousands of French craftsmen for over 150 years, but suddenly there would only be one “genuine Laguiole® knife”, and all the others would, overnight, be branded “counterfeits” or “fakes”; their sales would collapse, while Deckers would essentially hijack all of the brand value which has been painstakingly built up over the generations. And heaven forfend that anybody else try to make Laguiole knives in China — those would get seized at customs, and branded as “blatant criminal operations” by Deckers’ in-house counsel.

If that were to happen, one would hope that the WSJ would try to expose the evil trademark troll, instead of running gushing articles about how the company was serving up “stunning results in the midst of a global recession”. It certainly wouldn’t — one hopes — tell its readers how to make sure they were buying a genuine Laguiole® knife rather than an expensive French “fake”.

Conley mentions in passing, in his piece, that after Deckers lost the lawsuit in Australia, it failed to pay certain legal costs of the winning side, as required under Australian law. If he ever asked Deckers counsel about this, there’s no sign of it in the story. Instead, he concludes with a paean to a highly-successful company:

Although UGG is not the haute couture brand it was years ago—the darling of fashion spreads, the envy of A-list gift bags—its sales are bigger than ever. That “alpha consumer,” the mother picking up her kids at private school in the Range Rover? While she may no longer roll up in a pair of the latest UGG boots, her counterparts at the neighboring public school are pulling away in Explorers full of UGG-boot-wearing adolescents. UGG Australia has become a mainstream brand, always in stock—found in several stores in any mall—and begrudgingly approved of even by its critics for its comfort and utility. It’s an appropriate irony; the humble boot of the masses has come full circle—albeit with a trademark this time. And that’s fashion, according to Simonton. “Things come back,” he says, “but they’re never quite the same.”

Well, “irony” is one way of putting it: the humble boot of the masses is still a humble boot of the masses, but now it’s wrapped up in aggressively-enforced trademarks, ensuring that all the profits from that humble boot accrue to a single multi-billion-dollar multinational corporation. But yes, “that’s fashion”. And you can be sure that a glossy fashion-focused magazine is never going to cut against the grain of the fashion industry when it comes to issues surrounding trademark law and intellectual property.

Which is why it’s crazy that the WSJ tries to cover the fashion industry from within the covers of a glossy fashion-focused magazine. The conflicts are far too big — and, as this story shows, the winner in those conflicts is always going to be the big fashion multinational, rather than the magazine’s readers.

Update: It turns out there already is a Laguiole trademark troll! Thanks to vb2b, in the comments, for the link.

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Comments
8 comments so far

Simple. In this country, we make nothing except this ethreal bullshit called “Intellectual Property.” This fantasy must be protected at all costs. That’s why you got fake American uggs shutting down the original Australian uggs by labeling them fake (truly a Kafkaesque situation), why you have Microsoft colluding with the Russian OMON to harrass human rights activists over phantom “pirated software” etc. Disagraceful.

Posted by lobster | Report as abusive

The problem at the core of this is that generic terms (as ‘ugg’, apparently, was in pre-1970 Australia) cannot and should not be trademarked. That’s Intellectual Property 101. There could be a potential article in there somewhere that deals with the failure of trademarking system that allowed the term to be trademarked in Australia in the first place.

On the other hand, the term most likely was not a generic outside Australia (99.999% of non-Australians probably never heard of the word before Deckers started the move to commercialize them), and, in these countries, there’s no problem at all – when companies like McDougall try to capitalize on worldwide success of Deckers by pushing their products in the US, the trademark law justly protects Deckers.

Posted by Nameless | Report as abusive

Maybe worth noting that most uggs sold here in Australia make a point of carrying the “Australia Made” logo in order to charge the AU$80 cost. You can find the cheap Chinese ones too, but you don’t pay as much.

Maybe you should call this a “Genuine blog, written in the USA, manufactured by imported parts”.

Posted by nicfulton | Report as abusive

I would argue that this is a major failing with intellectual property law. There is simply no reason that a single company should be able to trademark/copyright ideas, designs and words that are already in general usage, as Ugg boots clearly are in Australia. Maybe McDonald’s missed a trick by not trademarking the “burger” and its specific collection of ingredients, then it could have been a monopolist, or maybe I should look for a product recently launched in the US and apply for the European copyrights?

http://cautiousbull.wordpress.com/

Posted by spbaines | Report as abusive

spbaines,
That probably wouldn’t work as the Europeans would recognize such as total BS. Greed has killed America, and it ain’t stopping anytime soon.

Posted by skeeteril | Report as abusive

Hmmm….small concerns in Australia being eaten up by big corporates…that rings a bell.
Talking of the Journal’s owner Rupert Murdoch, his troubles are mounting: new data suggests the Times paywalls are a calamity, Newscorp is hugely overdependent on the English soccer income, MySpace is collapsing, the Andy Coulson affair is making the WSJ look like liars…and the BSkyB grab at cash-flow sorry, takeover process is getting bogged down.
http://nbyslog.blogspot.com/2010/09/excl usive-online-times-titles.html

Posted by nbywardslog | Report as abusive

I just discovered this article and it contains a lot of inaccuracies. It also omits several important facts. Before the mid-1990s, when Deckers bought the rights to the “UGG” trademark (and the company Ugg Holdings) from an Australian, and tiny companies with similar names in places like Cornwall and New Zealand, a typical Australian ugg boot “factory” consisted of a shack at the edge of a sheep farm, with two or three people working there — all members of the sheep herdsman’s family. They made, at most a few hundred thousand dollars a year. Ugg boots were considered a lower-class, trashy type of footwear, worn by young suburban thugs called “bogans” who didn’t have any money. The American equivalent term would be “white trash.” In the UK you call them “chavs.”

Then Deckers embarked on a very clever and expensive marketing campaign, giving away thousands of pairs of boots not only to celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz and Oprah Winfrey, but also the entourage and fans for each celebrity. They carefully sought product placements in trendy films and TV series. The strategy paid off and Oprah named UGG brand boots one of her “Favorite Things” two consecutive years.

The UGG brand boot is now a high fashion item like Jimmy Choo shoes and Ralph Lauren sportswear. Instead of a few hundred thousand dollars in sales to a crowd of suburban Australian chavs, Deckers has just reached US$1 billion in annual sales worldwide. They have every right to protect the lucrative worldwide market that they have created, because they’re the ones who created it. The little Australian shacks on the edges of the sheep farms have every right to sell their wares in Australia but Deckers planted the seeds in the rest of the world, and now they’re reaping a bountiful harvest.

http://www.pjstar.com/business/x18959986 31/Ugg-kicking-it-in-the-U-S

Posted by JimDavis | Report as abusive
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